Mike Herz – Life Music from Northern New Jersey
I asked Mike Herz, “If you could sing a duet with any living singer, who would you choose?” Mike’s first choice was his friend, Emily Barnes. Stevie Nicks was his second choice. And that is what separates Mike Herz from the daydreamers.
The daydreamer sits at a desk pushing numbers around and thinking it would be really cool to sing with Stevie Nicks. He accomplishes his goal several times each day as he toils down the freeway on his commute, singing along to the Fleetwood Mac songs that seemingly comprise the entire playlist of 93.7 The Arrow. And yet thirty years later, all he has to show for his effort is thirty extra pounds on his waistline, a feat matched by Stevie Nicks.
Mike Herz, the man chasing his dream, grabs the best available singer and makes a run for it. Thirty years later he may not have made it much beyond the county line. But at least he gave it a damn good try and got as far as possible within the allotted time.
Shoved into the northernmost toe of New Jersey, Sussex County’s extensive parks and natural preserves create a protected cove within the Greater New York City area. But a protected cove can easily become a stagnant backwater in which economic development lags. Thus, a town like Newton, the Sussex County seat, can become a town that people are from. No one moves there seeking fame and fortune. And yet it is in Newton that Mike Herz is attempting to simultaneously make a stand and chase a dream.
Mike’s first album, Overgrown, tells the story of a man who is tormented by his dreams, attached to his home, and running out of time to make it all work. The album is divided into two sections which would have been Sides One and Two in a forgotten era.
Side One speaks of life in his home town of Newton, surrounded by state parks and forests. But the songs speak also of dissatisfaction. In “Spring Street,” he admits, “There are ghosts in this town and I’m one of them.” And in “Intermittent Rain,” our man is judged “caught between your childhood dream and your full-grown nightmare.” Side One ends with graduation from college, a milestone that traditionally signaled the arrival of economic comfort but that today marks, for too many students, the arrival of economic hardship.
In Side Two, the singer settles down, finds love, and almost becomes reconciled with his life’s choices. He is willing to consider his life a “work in progress,” but closes, in “Hard Times,” with a defiant voice: “I won’t back down, and I can’t stop now … The trunk is standing where it’s always stood.”
A statistical analysis: The word “dream,” or a variant, appears in 4 songs on Side One, but in only 1 song on Side Two. The word “love” appears in 1 song on Side One, but in 3 songs on Side Two.
Overgrown is a triumph of the lyric-driven, acoustic-based, and highly personal music form. At one time it would have been labeled Folk Music, music by and about regular folks like us. But perhaps we should call it Life Music. Mike Herz is singing about his life, and about our lives.
It is impossible to listen to Mike’s music without engaging him as a person. The songs themselves, raw and underproduced, make his voice, and therefore his person, very real. I was fortunate to be able to take the relationship a step beyond aural, as Mike [very patiently] engaged in an extended “email interview” with me. His thoughtful responses reflect his introspective nature, and perhaps a tendency to be slightly guarded with outsiders…
Is it accurate to say that you would like to become a well-known artist without leaving New Jersey or giving up your Real Life?
I think that is an accurate statement. I would like the songs to be heard by as many people as possible. That’s not to say I would not travel to do so. Right now I am booking venues in the Tri-State and New England areas, and this summer I plan to expand on that. I would love for music to be my sole profession, but that can only be possible if I can provide for my family. And from what I have seen that is rare. Having said that, I don’t think being a “success” in this is measured by the money you are making or the amount of Likes on your Facebook page. I played a gig last week and a lady cried, she was so moved by a song. I’ve had people email me after shows or send me messages online about how much they enjoyed the show or a particular tune. That is amazing to me. I am gratified, but never satisfied. I want to take it as far as I possibly can.
Do you think you can get your music to the world without leaving your job and committing to music 100%?
I don’t know. I ask myself that question all the time. I don’t know that I’m not committed 100%. What does that mean? To have no steady income or fall back plan? I have too many strings to gamble that way. I’m committed to the craft and to spreading the music, for sure. I think there is a lot more than commitment needed. Money, connections, and some good fortune need to factor in to the most obvious aspect, which is writing and making music people connect with.
Ever think about leaving New Jersey?
I think about leaving New Jersey all the time, but I know I’m staying. I have a lot of family and close friends here. As tempting as it can be to picture myself elsewhere, Jersey offers a little bit of everything. I have NYC and the ocean within an hour drive, yet my town is surrounded by beautiful forests and farmland. That’s pretty sweet. The grass is always greener.
On your website’s news section you posted, in June, that your first child was about to be born. So you are a father now?
I am a father now! My daughter, Olivia, is 5 months old. It has been incredibly inspirational.
Does fatherhood make it more difficult to sit down and write?
Time is more limited than it used to be, but I think it’s made me more efficient. Since time is limited, I need to use it wisely. I don’t sleep much anymore, but that’s OK.
What comes first: words or music?
With me it’s usually words. Often it comes in whole phrases so I just scribble them on the back of receipts or whatever is near. Sometimes an idea for a hook or a clever line will enter my head while I am trying to fall asleep so I write it on the notes on my phone before it disappears forever. Usually that’s how it happens, and then I piece it together over music. Not always though.
Are you still working as a high school English teacher?
I still teach high school English to 10th and 11th graders here in New Jersey. They know I play music, but I don’t really get into the details with them. I don’t want them showing up at gigs; that would be awkward. The majority of teenagers I encounter are either listening to Top 40 pop songs or rap anyway. I prefer to keep that world separate from my music world. I do use songs and lyrics to help teach figurative language though. They dig it.
What are some of the songs that you use?
I think the last song I used in class was “I am a Rock” by Simon & Garfunkel. “A rock feels no pain, and an island never cries.” I was teaching metaphors. I think some of them got it. Some had no clue. [Laughs] They had to bring in metaphor lyrics from the song of their choice as a homework assignment. I don’t remember any of their metaphor examples off the top of my head. We did it for similes as well, and I remember a lot of Miley Cyrus “I came in like a wrecking a ball” and Rihanna “Shine like diamonds”. I then proceeded to do a lesson on cliches.
Balancing having a job of this nature and writing and playing music is challenging. I am dead set on proving that I can reach a large amount of listeners without having to live in my car touring the country. Press and word of mouth helps. 🙂
Some of your songs paint a somewhat bleak picture of life after high school.
I think everyone gets bleak at some point. That’s reality. The ups and downs are part of the deal. There is an inevitable let down when being confronted with the details of what being an adult actually entails. Not to be pessimistic, but there is a lot that gets left out of the vision we have of being “grown up” when we’re young.
Which two songs from Overgrown do you want the world to hear?
Hmmm… It’s hard to choose. You’re not supposed to choose your favorite child. I would have to say “If the Stars Align.” It was a last minute addition to the album and I think it ended up being the best song on the whole thing. I can picture it being done with more production and sung by other people.
Maybe “Dear Younger Me” because it seems to be a song that people relate to well. It’s got some lines that came quickly to me and all kind of fell into place.
In “Dear Younger Me,” what previous age did you imagine yourself addressing?
Good question. I think I was talking to my teenage self, pre- high school graduate. Regrets are real. I would do some things differently.
If you received a letter today from your Older Me, what do you think he would tell you?
Older Me would tell Me Now to slow down. Me Now would decline. Time is great motivation. The hour glass has been turned. I constantly hear the sand cascading.
Tell us about the abandoned basketball court that is the background image for your website, and that is the “cover art” for Overgrown.
That is next to an old run down monastery by where I live. I love basketball. I played in high school and college, and still do when I can find the time. It was my primary focus for many years, but that has changed. Music has replaced what basketball once was, so there is a lot of symbolism in that photograph.
Describe your dream album. Who would produce and play on the sessions?
Dream album and recording session: I was just talking about this with some friends. I think it would be great to have a party or social gathering feel to it. People hanging around, letting loose but focusing on the goal of recording the music. Ideally, I’d love it to be a big studio space with an open floor plan yet with a cozy feel to it. Some throw rugs and couches, a bunch of positive faces with a creative vibe happening. I don’t really have any dream musicians in mind to accompany the songs. My only requirement is that they know what they are doing and create the sound I’m hearing in my head. Producer would probably have to be T Bone Burnett because he’s worked on so many great projects and I would get to say “T Bone” out loud over and over again.
I think an Austin producer like J Wagner or Andrew Pressman would be perfect for you.
I know of both those guys, just from knowing John Elliott, Raina Rose, and Anthony da Costa. John is great, so is Raina. I love them and their music. John has been very inspiring to me. I bet many things about Austin would be incredible for me. I think the geography would be an issue, but technology is pretty amazing so ya never know. I’d be willing to work with anyone that was interested in my music, to be honest.
How does John Elliott inspire you?
With John, first and foremost it’s the music. I love his music. He is probably my favorite songwriter other than Dylan. But it’s more than the music. It’s his integrity and balls. He is the true to his art and is not afraid to put it out there in its most honest form. He can be ruthless, hilarious, and heartbreaking all in one verse. On top of that he is a super friendly guy who has been very kind to me. I think he has a lot of respect amongst the fans and songwriters that know him.
I believe you recently opened a show for John. How did that go?
We played two shows, one in Philly and one in Asbury Park, NJ. They were great. John wore a kimono and crown for a few of his newer tunes, bringing a little theater to the singer-songwriter scene. It was wild. Great to hear his new stuff and share my newer songs with him.
If you could sing a duet with any living singer, what singer would you choose and what song would you sing?
I have a lot of fun singing with my friend Emily Barnes. It’s been fun to collaborate with someone and have similar goals to push our music as far as we can. We sing a song called “Color Me” that we co-wrote and it’s always a blast. Playing gigs with Emily has made performing more fun.
If I had to pick a famous name, I guess it wouldn’t be awful to sing “Landslide” with Stevie Nicks, especially if I was a few drinks in and in a sentimental mood.
If we expand the field to include dead singers, who would you choose?
Dead singers? Maybe I would rap with 2Pac. I loved him in high school. Knew all his songs, even the bootlegs that came out years after he was killed. He was a poet.
What are your goals for 2014?
I have many. I’d like to do some touring in short bursts, primarily on the East coast. I’d like to record another album with a full band sound, as well as an EP with Emily Barnes as this duo side project we’ve formed called “Closer to Home”. I think another album should be ready to go probably sometime next spring/summer. It’s gonna have a more upbeat kind of folk rock sound. More instruments, drums, better production. Now I just need to figure out the best way to record it all.
There are so many indie singers and bands competing for the listener’s attention. How do you plan to rise above the pack?
There is so much music out there that it is too much to keep up with. Figuring out the formula to rise above the white noise is beyond me. All I know is that I feel I am bringing a unique perspective to it all. It’s not like what Springsteen does, trying to relate or connect with the working man. I am the working man. I don’t have to look far for inspiration. I just want to play as many places as I feasibly can and keep expanding my fan base and friendships through music. Most importantly, I want to keep writing and growing as a songwriter and performer. That’s all I can do. Just keep pushing the music forward.
Thanks, Mike. And since you’re an English teacher, I have to ask: How’s my writing?
Your writing is great.
BONUS VIDEO – “Preserved Land,” recorded live in Branchville, NJ, October 2012.